There has been a flurry of dismissals in the news. Folks in the church coming out in support of marriage equality and LGBT inclusion have lost their job, their faith has been attacked, they have lost positions or removed from their churches and denominations. The chaplain at Wheaton College fired, a professor at Fuller lost his job over the issue, a Methodist pastor lost his position when he decided to marry his partner, a gay school teacher fired from a Catholic school. All in the last few months!
Rachel Held Evans writes that says she’s received “at least a dozen messages from friends and readers” telling her that the reaction to that ruling “confirmed for them what they’ve known in their hearts for a while: they don’t want anything to do with Christianity anymore”. Which makes Adam Lee ask ” Why on earth do you still consider yourselves Christian? What attachment do you have to a faith that’s treated you and your loved ones with suspicion, hostility and contempt at every turn?”
He asks those of us who are gay and Christian as well as those who are supportive and still remain in the church. An easy answer would be that I never experienced church like that, this was not the Christianity presented to me as a kid. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church USA and the predecessor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I won’t say that they were inclusive as denominations in the early and mid 90s when I came out. But the student ministry I was a part of then, was.
Individual churches, campus ministries, and brave individuals laid the ground work for inclusion in the wider denominations. And before that as a kid, the Gospel as they preached it (or at least as I received it) was always about God’s love and inclusion. They were not places to hear about hell and judgement, but rather God’s acceptance. As such I did not grow up with self loathing. Nor where there barriers, in myself, or in the church, when I sought to reconcile my sexual orientation and my faith.
Of course that doesn’t answer the question for other conservative denominations that were never likely to move on this issue, such as those highlighted by Adam Lee as he asks “Wouldn’t it be easier just to be an atheist? You’re enormously less likely to face institutional resistance or discrimination.” I can’t speak for them, but I’m going to guess beyond the fight or flight reaction, there are other reasons for staying.
For one, we could believe in the reality of God. We could have had personal experiences or could be persuaded by philosophic arguments like I was. But even as we wish the church was more LGBT inclusive, being an atheist is not on the horizon for many of us. It could be that most of our experiences outside of this issue have been positive. The liturgy, worship, the relations in the life of the community. The intellectual and practical resources of the Christian tradition that connects with us.
It takes a lack of imagination to find it hard to believe that there are LGBT folks who remain in the church even as they fight for acceptance. Folks are multidimensional and no area of life captures the whole of us. Anyone who joins or leaves the church, becomes an atheist or a theist, or changes religions has had a preponderance of events, reasons, that added up over time, well before the decision was made.
That kind of imagination or what Henry Nelson Wieman calls “appreciative awareness” of the other is needed more than ever as we ask folks to consider these issues from another perspective, to change policies, to move to greater levels of acceptance. It’s the basic ingredient in interfaith dialog, in getting theists and atheists to understand each other, in crossing any kind of divides that mark our society.
Nurturing this in whatever context we find ourselves in, whatever our beliefs and background, will be key to the many issues we face in the 21st century.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma
PS. Thanks David Hayward at Naked Pastor for the graphic!